School's out for summer. Maybe even forever.
Dead or School is a 2.5D action-platformer about a girl who wants to return to the surface of a post-apocalyptic Tokyo after living underground to survive a mutant outbreak. The Marvelous-published game mixes a variety of art styles in presenting the story through animated cutscenes and stills, but the screens where most of the action takes place leave something to be desired, as does the framerate. However, the minute-to-minute gameplay is tense and exciting, feeling a little like an action-RPG version of Mega Man. Is it worth helping Hisako realize her dream of fighting off hordes of monsters to open a school in largely-abandoned Tokyo? Well, it depends on your priorities.
The story begins with humans having migrated underground, living there for years, to avoid a mutant apocalypse that has ravaged Tokyo. The surface is off limits to normal people, given how dangerous it is, but Hisako, who is the daughter of one of the faction leaders, is determined to reach the surface and lead a normal student life that she has only heard about in passing. The world mostly consists of subway stations and their surrounding floors that you navigate via corridors, elevators, and platforms. A mini-map in the top-right corner of the screen shows points of interest and your general location, but it can be hard to read in portable mode. Dialogue between characters is in almost in the "so bad it's good" category, but grammar errors are also frequent enough to be distracting.
Gameplay centers on exploring each new area and completing objectives such as rescuing survivors and finding new weapons. Challenging boss encounters await at the end of each area, with mini-bosses and scores of enemies constantly assailing you during exploration. Hisako generally has three types of weapons at her disposal: a sword or other melee weapon, a gun, and a heavy weapon like a rocket launcher. You'll pick up a variety of weapons within each category, and you can upgrade them and modify their bonuses as well. Switching weapons and powering them up is key to defeating the more powerful enemies that show up as you progress.
There are some interesting RPG mechanics that add depth to the gameplay. Hisako levels up as she mows down monster hordes, and levelling up increases her life and stamina meters, while also allowing her to dole out more punishment and take less damage. You also gain skill points that can be put into one of three trees (one tree for each weapon type) and the trees have quite a bit of depth to them, too. The heavy weapon skill tree can make you more proficient with grenade launchers, for example, but it can also raise your stamina or allow you to gain stamina back when killing enemies. There's almost a grinding requirement in that enemies and bosses more than a few levels higher than you will be incredibly difficult to take out, even on the easiest difficulty setting.
In terms of visuals and performance, Dead or School is more dead on arrival. It almost looks like a 3DS game, and each environment seems to use similar colors and shades, all of which are quite dark and dour. It fits with the theme and setting, but it gets repetitive after you've gone through two or three of the levels. The sub-60fps performance is noticeable given the frequent combat encounters, but it's not the end of the world (pun intended). Even if you play in docked mode, the screen zooms way out to give you a larger view of the environment, but this makes enemies and your own character hard to say. Dropped items are even harder to spot, some of which have to be manually picked up as well.
The gameplay and exploration of Dead or School are surprisingly addictive, but enough small issues give me pause in fully recommending it. Grinding for levels, constantly upgrading your equipment, and completing sidequests for stat boosts are all practically required. It's very likely you'll encounter multiple final bosses that you simply aren't prepared for. Fortunately, many enemies respawn and save points refill your health and ammo, in addition to functioning as waypoints. Fanservice images pop up from time to time, but they aren't overly egregious and shouldn't dissuade you from a purchase. If you can look past its numerous imperfections, Dead or School is a satisfying and compelling albeit janky action-platformer that may be worth getting a hall pass for.